Posts Tagged ‘particle physics’
Ha ha. The title was a little bit of humour. Or what passes for humour in my confused brain. I don’t even really understand the Higgs Boson, so not sure how much of an explanation I am going to be able to come up with. It’s an important discovery though, so I’m going to try. Let’s start at the beginning, by the start of the twentieth century scientists had determined that the universe was made up of matter and energy. We are all familiar with matter, and by energy I mean things like light and magnetism. All pretty straightforward. Then along came Einstein with the famous E=MC² equation, which basically states that matter is made out of energy. Which eventually let to nuclear weapons which work by converting a tiny amount of matter into energy. Yes, there’s a lot of energy tied up in even the tiniest amount of matter. Science marched on in the ensuing decades and discovered a whole host of atomic and subatomic particles that make up the matter around us. And after awhile, they had a problem. There was no reason for matter to exist! Or to be precise, some of these subatomic particles had mass, and mass is what characterizes matter. So more exactly, scientists couldn’t explain why any particles had mass at all, by rights the universe should just be a seething cauldron of energy.
This was a serious problem. Scientists couldn’t actually say “well, we’ve proved we don’t exist,” since even most lay people could come up with pretty strong arguments against that theory. What to do? Well, in 1960 a fellow named Peter Higgs come up with an idea, there was this thing called the Higgs Field that encompassed the entire universe, and it was populated by these things called Higgs Bosons. How do Higgs Boson give other particles mass? Well, because some particles can zip right through the Higgs Field, and some can’t. The ballroom analogy (nods to physicist David Miller) is the best I’ve come across. Imagine a ballroom with evenly loosely spaced guests milling about at random. These are the Higgs Bosons. Now if someone were to walk across the room, they would have little difficulty. These people would be photons and other particles that are unaffected by the Higgs Field. Now say a celebrity comes to the party, what happens? Why, the Higgs Bosons cluster around them, inhibiting their movement and the movement of anything that gets near them! These celebrity guests are the particles that have mass. Voila, see, it’s that easy!
Wait, why do some particles attract Higgs Bosons and some don’t? Damned if I know, but the scientists who figured this all out claim that it makes sense. And furthermore, they were able to predict what a Higgs Boson would be like if they could create one under laboratory settings. And that’s where the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider, or atom smasher in common parlance, comes in. It takes huge amounts of energy to get a Higgs Boson to appear long enough to be measured. And that dear readers is what this claim is all about, the LHC has detected a particle that appears to be very close to what Higgs predicted way back in 1960! Are they absolutely sure? No. Why the rush to make the announcement? Well, partly because it is an amazing discovery, and I suspect partly because the esteemed Mr Higgs is 83 now and they wanted him to be present for the announcement. Yes, scientists are human too.
So why is the Higgs Boson referred to as the God particle? Because the universe loves to punish scientists for making flippant remarks appaently. A scientist originally came up with it because the Higgs Boson explains why we are here, and has regretted it ever since. This is because the Higgs Boson should really be called the Godless particle, its one more step, and a big one at that, towards explaining how our amazing universe came to be out of nothing, no supernatural nonsense required. As the esteemed Neil deGrasse Tyson put it: “God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance.”
Lastly, what good is it? I mean, the Higgs Boson cost billions of dollars to discover, is there any practical use for this discovery? Well, maybe. That’s another question that makes scientists want to beat people to death with their laptops. Basic research almost never has any immediate practical applications, and as such it’s very easy for pundits to claim it’s all a waste of money. One US Senator made his career out of ridiculing science spending, showing how far the country has gone downhill since the 1950s when most people understood what an amazing thing science was. The Higgs Boson may lead to new sources of energy. It may lead to nuclear weapons that can fit inside a bullet. Some even say it may lead to a way to destroy the universe. Science is versatile that way, it can be used for good or evil.
Fortunately scientists haven’t destroyed the universe yet. Frankly I suspect that’s a bit beyond their reach. I hope. Have a great weekend everyone!
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. It’s a beer. Credit and copyright and plug: “Boson de Higgs beer is a wheat beer that combines sour, smoky and spicy flavors … and it’s made with real bosons. The beer was reviewed for Les Coureurs des Boires, a blog authored by Martin Thibault and David Levesque Gendron.” Skol!)
Yes, scientists from the CERN particle accelerator have been carefully firing neutrinos at a detector 730 km (454 mi) away and measuring their speed. And to their dismay, the particles have been arriving some 60 nanoseconds earlier than the speed of light allows, with a margin of error of about 10 nanoseconds. This has a number of physicists in a tizzy, as nothing in the Universe can travel faster than the speed of light according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The Theory of Relativity is an extremely robust thoery that has been proved right any number of times, as one scientist put it after hearing the news, this is like announcing that one has invented a flying carpet.
To their credit, the scientists making the announcement are also extremely skeptical of their results. In fact the only reason they published was so that the rest of the scientific community had the opportunity to peruse them and point out where the mistake was made. And of course to encourage scientists elsewhere to try and replicate them, nothing is really proved in science until it is independently verified by multiple objective sources. In this case we may have to wait awhile though, apparently the CERN accelerator is pretty much the only place set up now to make measurements of this type, so there’s going to be a lot of fine tooth combs going over CERN’s data.
So why is this important? Well, in some senses it’s not. The Theory of Relativity works, things like space travel and GPS systems wouldn’t work if there was some basic flaw in Relativity. So this probably isn’t going to change the world much even if it does turn out to be true for some reason. Still, this does illustrate several things, the first being how nicely the core of science works. Scientists find an anomalous result, if they can’t explain it, they publish it and throw it out for the discussion and research of other scientists. Eventually the result will be explained away as some sort of measurement error, or there will be a new chapter to our understanding of how the universe works.
It’s also an interesting little tidbit if one has been following basic particle physics for any length of time. Pretty much every time science builds a bigger atom smasher (to use the vernacular,) they almost invariably get some results that no one expected. Which is why they keep on building bigger atom smashers, to further refine our understanding of how our universe works on the tiniest of scales. So this result isn’t so much an indication that science may be wrong, but an example of science at its best. I think it’s pretty safe to say that this won’t be the last time that cutting edge physics research yields unexpected results. Stay tuned.
More on point, this illustrates a concept that often seem hard for some people to grasp. “The map is not the territory.” No matter how perfect our understanding and model of the Universe becomes, it’s just a model, it’s not reality itself. This is ultimately what the scientific revolution was all about, the idea that no matter how wise a scholar was, their theories had to jibe with reality. And that a scientific idea had to be testable for it to be a valid scientific concept. There was a time when learned men seriously debated whether Adam had a naval or whether angels defecated. Those days are gone, at least in mainstream science, but the underlying attitude that an understanding of reality is reality is still all too common. This is why (among other reasons) religion still has such a grip on so many minds, and why scientists still occasionally do things that in retrospect were pretty silly.
Lastly, and this is purely speculative, it may actually turn out that this is both a real result and one that will lead to an important new aspect of our understanding of reality. It has been suggested (seriously) that this may be caused by some sort of micro-wormhole property to reality, or that maybe the “matrix” of reality has some wiggle room to it and things can travel faster than light under some circumstances. So yes, maybe someday this discovery will be hailed as the first step towards practical interstellar travel, and some day future human space ships may be powered by a “CERN principle” drive.
I doubt it, but hey, fun to think about.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit and it’s well, a cool image to illustrate this post with. It’s the Project Daedalus probe, designed to travel to Barnard’s Star, six light years away, in about 50 years. What can I say, I still like the idea that humans may one day build interstellar probes, so I mention Daedalus and the similar Project Longshot probe any chance I get. Humans could be building probes like this now, if we weren’t so busy spending all of our spare money on military hardware. Sigh.)